Friday, January 25th, 2013 Posted by Jim Thacker

How Gnomon is reinventing online training

Since 1997, the Gnomon School of Visual Effects has trained the industry from its headquarters in Hollywood. Now, its revolutionary new online teaching program replicates that classroom experience anywhere in the world. We talked to Gnomon founder Alex Alvarez and the school’s key tutors to find out how it works.

For decades, Hollywood has been the centre of the visual effects industry. It’s where modern digital effects were born, where the world’s highest-profile VFX projects are made, and still – even in these days of global outsourcing – where many of the world’s leading studios are based. It’s also where an entire generation of staff at those studios were trained, thanks to the Gnomon School of Visual Effects, headquartered in a converted TV lot on N. Cahuenga Boulevard, North Hollywood.

Founded in 1997, Gnomon is arguably the CG industry’s best-known training body. With a placement rate of 97% across its full-time courses, it provides professional training for artists working in the fields of illustration and concept design, videogame production, animation, visualisation – and, of course, visual effects. Over the past decade, its alumni have gone on to senior roles at such studios as Industrial Light & Magic, DreamWorks, Digital Domain, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Blizzard Entertainment and Electronic Arts. There was only one snag: to attend one of those full-time courses, you had to be based in Los Angeles yourself.

But now that has changed, thanks to a revolutionary new online training program developed in-house at Gnomon. Launched earlier this month, the 55 new courses enable users to learn live, in real time, interacting directly with other students and with their tutors – no matter where in the world they live.

Gnomon’s online teaching platform in action. Over a year in development, the platform provides an interactive online classroom in which students and tutors can conduct demos and ask questions live, in real time.

“For over 15 years, Gnomon has trained thousands of artists on our campus in Hollywood,” says Gnomon’s founder and director, Alex Alvarez. “In development for over a year, our new online platform is truly the closest experience possible to taking a course on that campus.”

During development, Gnomon focused on creating an intuitive, user-friendly training system that mimicked a conventional classroom environment. Through screen-sharing and webcam feeds, participants can see all of the other students in the class, view the instructor’s desktop, and share their own screens to receive homework critiques or technical assistance.

Outside of classes, students can chat in private forums, read course notes and syllabi, download assignments and upload homework: a complete offline learning experience, online. But the format of the tuition is not the only unique thing about Gnomon’s new courses.

“Creating a new experience for online training was step one: the next step was the curriculum,” says Alvarez. “My primary role has been to develop a diverse range of courses covering a range of techniques and software that emphasise the arts and technology of the entertainment industry.”

That curriculum spans 14 distinct categories, from matte painting and entertainment design to the components of a modern CG pipeline – modelling, texturing, lighting, rigging, animation, effects, compositing and motion graphics – and including further courses on programming and games tools. Covering a range of industry-standard software from 3ds Max to ZBrush, it is a teaching program like no other.

Past Gnomon student animation work from Stephen DeLalla. While the fundamentals of character animation remain constant, the new online curriculum extends those principles to more complex photorealistic creatures.

To understand how Gnomon’s online curriculum differs from that of other training bodies, let’s look at one part of it in more detail. Gnomon’s character animation courses are arranged in five ascending tiers of difficulty, with foundation skills at the bottom, and advanced creature animation at the top. The fundamentals don’t differ much from other online training: as animation course co-ordinator David Breaux puts it, “every character animator has to learn how to animate a bouncing ball and a walk cycle”.

But as the complexity of the courses increases, Gnomon’s approach becomes increasingly unique. “Typically, rigs [used on animation courses] are short, cartoony, Disney-esque characters,” says Breaux, a veteran of movies like Real Steel and TRON: Legacy. “We’re trying to keep ours closer in style to the school itself, which is a bit grittier: more real, more high-tech.”

The challenge Breaux and rigging co-ordinator Jonah Austin faced was to create a set of in-house teaching rigs that catered to this more photorealistic style of animation. “One of the problems with students using whatever [rigs they can find online] is that there’s no support if there are problems, or if they don’t know how the rig works,” points out Breaux. “It’s hassle that they, as students, shouldn’t be dealing with.

Gnomon’s rigs are designed to a set of consistent internal conventions, making it easy for students to progress from one to the next. “The same controls you have on the bouncing ball – the centre of gravity, and so on – appear in progressively more and more complex characters.” says Breaux. “It’s like driving: once you know what a steering wheel is and what a brake pedal is, you can get in just about any car.”

An official teaser for Digital Domain’s Oscar-nominated VFX work on Real Steel. Animation projects involving robots are becoming increasingly common: a task Gnomon’s animation curriculum is designed to address.

At the highest level of complexity, the rigs are designed to actual production standards. “We’re developing rigs an animator would see on a tentpole VFX film,” says Austin, whose credits include Beowulf and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. “One of the rigs I’ll be releasing is a dragon. Not many other programs can offer something like that.”

Uniquely, as well as character and creature animation, Gnomon’s courses cover animating machinery. “Another thing that sets us apart is dealing with vehicles and robots,” says Breaux. “On films like Real Steel, they give you motion capture to work with. That’s fine and dandy, but how does an eight-ton robot actually move? You have to know how to pull out the human element from the mocap and make [the character] feel bigger and heavier. With movies like Pacific Rim coming out, it’s good to give students some exposure to that.”

Heads-Up Display, a CG promo for the New York Mets, directed and VFX supervised by Marc Rienzo. A key feature of Gnomon’s online courses is the chance to ask questions of industry veterans like Rienzo live.

The ethos that the training must match actual current production standards carries over to the other courses. “I put together most of these classes because I want to watch them myself,” says VFX supervisor Rob Nederhorst, who co-ordinates the compositing and motion graphics program. “[The programming courses] are definitely not just ‘Introduction to Python’: it’s how to create tools that fit a pipeline. [As well as novices], I wanted to create courses for established visual effects guys who want to understand the science behind the art.”

One of the benefits of live, real-time training, argues Nederhorst, is that students can get to ask questions of the instructors: industry veterans like VFX supervisor Allan McKay, Sony Pictures Imageworks’ senior software engineer Sean Looper, and compositing supervisor Marc Rienzo.

“These guys are really advanced dudes, so the techniques people are going to learn are all either cutting-edge or fresh takes on [common problems]” says Nederhorst. “To be able to say [someone like] Rienzo, ‘Hey, we really don’t understand what this equation is doing: can you go back three steps,’ is key.”

Putting it all together: Cenk Cevdet Kilar and Stefano Farci’s recent Best of Term Grand Prize-winning project. The opportunity to learn from other students is crucial to the Gnomon online experience.

The same principle – that students learn better when they can ask questions in real time – also holds true in less advanced courses. “As an instructor, I don’t like pre-canned projects, says Mark Dedecker, who co-ordinates Gnomon’s modelling and sculpting curriculum. “It’s much better to enable students to take their own content and develop it along with what they are learning.”

“All too often, production work becomes about problem-solving,” continues Dedecker. “As a student, if all you have is a pre-recorded lecture, you have to figure things out by yourself. But if you have direct access to a lecturer, they’re going to be able to show you how to identify and fix problems right there.”

“I’m looking forward to the week-by-week interaction between myself and the students,” agrees TD Wayne Hollingsworth, who co-ordinates Gnomon’s effects curriculum. But as Hollingsworth, whose credits include Battle: Los Angeles and Thor, points out, it’s equally important for students to be able to learn from one another. “By being able to research and develop numerous simulations, students will be able to grow as they move forward in the curriculum. Sharing techniques with other students will allow them to expand their toolbox.”

And shared learning isn’t the only advantage of an online classroom over video training: students also benefit from the chance to network with one another. “It’s much better to connect with people face to face,” says Dedecker. “The industry is so network-oriented that the odds of other students being [able to get you a job, or even] your boss one day are very good.”

Training the next generation of CG superstars
With its interactive, real-time teaching platform, a curriculum matched to the needs of real production companies and a staff of working professionals, Gnomon’s online courses offer a unique learning experience – and one open to anyone with a webcam and an internet connection. The school has already trained one generation of effects artists: now, it looks set to train a second, not just in Hollywood, but all over the world.

As Gnomon founder Alex Alvarez puts it: “After almost 20 years, I am more optimistic and excited about where our industry is going than ever, and yet I remained humbled by the talents of so many, including our students.”

Gnomon’s online courses typically last 10 weeks. For a full list of available courses, entry requirements and prices, visit the school’s website via the link below. Registration for the spring term opens on 5 March 2013.

Read more or enrol for Gnomon’s online courses on the school’s website

Full disclosure: CG Channel is owned by the Gnomon School of Visual Effects.